Dear Friend And Gardener – A Book Review

When I was last asked to review a book, I chose instead to offer it up as a competition prize.  Not so with the new illustrated edition of ‘Dear Friend and Gardener.‘ Here was a book I wanted all for myself.  Mine, I tell you; it’s all mine.

DSM_7240First published in 1998, ‘Dear Friend and Gardener‘ is a series of letters written over a two-year period

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between Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd.

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Beth Chatto has spent 50 years building a garden on an inauspicious and challenging site in East Anglia.  If you have a troublesome area in your garden you will want to consult one of Beth’s books: The Dry Garden, The Damp Garden and Beth Chatto’s Shade Garden. They’ve certainly been very useful to me.

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Christopher Lloyd inherited Great Dixter and, up until his death in 2006, devoted 50 years evolving it into one of the best-loved gardens in England.  Whilst I have yet to visit Beth’s gardens, I have been to Great Dixter several times.  It is a great inspiration.

I hadn’t realised (until after I had finished reading the book) that the letters were written with an eye to being published.  As I sat in the Priory greenhouse and supped my tea and scoffed my sandwiches, I did wonder at the sheer frequency and regularity of the letters and breadth of subjects covered.  As well as gardening and horticulture of course, the letters range across food, opera and the arts, wildlife and well … just life.  The publishers had initially wanted to concentrate on gardening matters only.  But the two authors were insistent that the letters should reflect “a rounded picture of our lives (which) would of necessity include much that is non-horticultural.”  Christopher and Beth were right and the book is all the richer for it.  Though I couldn’t help but be slightly miffed; just a little disappointed that the book was ‘manufactured.’

I was quite often reminded of my lack of deep horticultural knowledge; they do cover a wide range of plants and use a flurry of latin names.  (I almost cheered on the few occasions when I actually knew which plant they were talking about).  If you have a laptop or tablet to hand, it can help to reference the plants they are discussing but it isn’t by any means necessary.  The writing is inclusive and I found it fascinating to sit at the knees, as it were, of two such knowledgeable and gifted teachers.

DSM_7241The book is amusing:

Christopher to Beth on carrots – “they are crazily cracked and full of slugs.  Does that make them organic?”

and mundane:

Christopher again – “Incidentally, if someone is in Colchester, could you bring me a canister of that shampoo I like?”

despairing:

Beth on horticultural students – “… who all too rarely exhibit a real hunger for the subject.  … They all seem to be studying landscape design; yet when I ask a few elementary questions I find they are astonishingly ignorant about plants.”

and intimate:

Christopher – “Now the light is going; I’ll pop out and see how Fergus is getting along.”  (I really wanted to pop out myself to see what Fergus was up to).

I was also able to share experiences … and nod sagely.  For example, for several years there have been no mallard ducklings at the Priory.  Christopher – “Often by the end of the first week all the ducklings have vanished.  How?  Probably the heron picks off an early morning straggler, but I think the moorhens are responsible.”  Quite possibly Christopher, quite possibly but personally I suspect mink.  Damn them.

There is plenty to enjoy and learn in ‘Dear Friend and Gardener’ – whether you just dip into it, read it month by appropriate month or, as I did, devour it in one gulp.  I have managed (just) to find enough space on my bookshelf for yet another gardening book.  You might want to too.

To order a copy of Dear Friend and Gardener for £16 including p&p* (RRP £20), telephone 01903 828503 or email mailorders@lbsltd.co.uk, and quote the offer code APG16.

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22 thoughts on “Dear Friend And Gardener – A Book Review

  1. Pingback: Pennisetum alopecuroides : a late winter friend | Barn House Garden

  2. How wonderful to have this book sent to you for review! I’m another who found my copy just a couple of weeks ago, also in an Oxfam book shop, (along with a copy of Cleve West’s ‘Our Plot’). Both are books that I’ve wanted to read for some time but I wish my copy of Dear Friend had got pictures! I’ve yet to visit Beth Chatto’s garden but have been to Dixter a couple of times. It’s lovely to be able to ‘eavesdrop’ on their conversation by way of the book; I’m really looking forward to reading it, it’s next on my list. And I’ll also need a bigger bookcase quite soon!

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  3. I found an original version of this in August, for £4.99 in an Oxfam bookshop and love it, limiting my reading to the current month so still lots to discover. However, I will be putting this new illustrated version on my Christmas wish list.

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    • Hi Alison, I tried reading month by month with a Monty Don book but failed miserably and soon went hurtling ahead. Virtually all my gardening books come from charity shops and the rest from 2nd hand bookshops. I don’t like to squeeze open my wallet for full price. Dave

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  4. Very tempting, I have Beth Chatto’s Woodland garden which I bought just after we had got our garden. I found it was beyond me at that time but now I have looked it out to reread it and be inspired anew.

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  5. I found this lovely book in a second hand shop in Kendal this summer. It doesn’t have pictures though, well, not that you can see, only word pictures for your mind’s eye. Beth Chatto’s garden is lovely, went there this summer and the cafe is a lovely place to, well, eat. And hurrah, they had for sale a hypericum olympicum, the little beauty.

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    • If I had been to Kendall recently, Ros I would’ve beaten you to that particular bargain (and probably snatched it out of your hand). Can’t believe you went to the BC garden and didn’t invite me. Humphh. Dx

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  6. I bought it when it first came out, its the sort of book you can read again and again, finding different bits of information each time. The only thing I didn’t like were C. Lloyds comments about Geoff Hamilton when he died, surely not necessary to put that into a letter which he knew was going to be published.

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    • I agree about the comments re Geoff Hamilton, Pauline and thought them unnecessary and unfair – though of course Christopher was entitled to his opinion. And obviously didn’t care that they were going to be published. I had included a reference to them in this review but they got edited out as the post became too long. Dave

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  7. I reaad this book when it first came out and loved it. you really must go to visit Beth’s garden, it is inspirational, more so that Great Dixter I’d say, though I love that too. I’m not sure I still have my copy, I must try to search it out.

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    • I have checked precisely where her garden is Christina and I hadn’t realised it was so close to Colchester – somewhere I used to live (though many, many years ago). I certainly do intend to visit next time I’m in that neck of the woods. Dave

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  8. I have the original version, with no photos, and I love it. You forget the letters were written with the intention to publish them. I was fascinated by the cryptic comments about the bird feeders at Highgrove and longed to know Lloyd’s real view

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    • Yes, Helen I remembered that comment (though I had to go back and re-read after you mentioned it. Thank goodness for the index). Odd that he didn’t elaborate. You’ll have to write to Beth Chatto and ask her what he meant. D

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  9. I read a review of this a few months ago and thought it sounded rather fine, you’ve confirmed that it’s a right good read, though I am a little disappointed that it was, to some extent, staged. Even so, tremendous to read two such eminent plantspeople swapping horitcultural notes. And shopping lists. I forgive you for not offering it as a prize 😉 Time I joined the library I think!

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